10th December 2000
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Roger Thiedeman discovers the bullet-riddled Silver Wraith rotting in a Penang museum 

The saddest Rolls-Royce 

Among the many de- lights Penang has to offer the visitor, as Australian citizens we were pleasantly surprised to discover an Antipodean connection with this Malaysian island. Penang was colonised in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, the father of Capt. William Light who later founded the city of Adelaide, South Australia.

But Penang had more surprises in store. They surfaced during a leisurely guided tour of the city aboard one of a pair of cycle trishaws (the only way to see Georgetown!). Our trishaw driver was a pleasant Chinese man of few words. The second trishaw, containing two young women from Adelaide (another coincidence!), was ridden by our garrulous tour guide Raj. 

Speaking impeccable English, Raj turned out to be of Sri Lankan origin, much to our mutual delight. After showing us (my wife and I) some of PenangÕs fascinating, better-kept secrets - including ÔCoffin-makers StreetÕ, where funerary objects like scaled-down, stick-and-paper replicas of Mercedes-Benz cars, video recorders, and multi-storey mansions are created for cremation with the deceased at Chinese/Taoist funerals - Raj and his companion pedalled us to the Penang museum. Here, we expected to imbibe more of the islandÕs rich history and culture.

But history and culture took a back seat the minute I alighted from the front seat of our trishaw. My attention was drawn inexorably to an open-sided shed, within the museum compound, just to the left of the main building. Displayed therein were three motor vehicles, from right to left: a black, mid-1960s Cadillac limousine; a yellow Scammell Scarab three-wheeled lorry from the 1940s/1950s; and a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith limousine. Those familiar with my automotive tastes will know which of the trio attracted me like a bee to nectar! 

An initial appraisal showed that the Silver Wraith, mounted on jacks, was in a poor state of preservation. Its paintwork was a dull grey, with patches of red primer showing through. The ÔFlying LadyÕ radiator mascot had been replaced by a crude angle bracket supporting a Penang state pennant. 

A placard, with inscriptions in Malay and English, was suspended above the car. As I read the text, my pulse quickened. Because it soon became apparent that here was no ordinary Rolls-Royce. This was a car that had played a significant but sad role in the history of British-Malayan relations. The plaque said: 

ÒOn 5th October 1951, British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney, his wife and his Secretary, Mr. D. J. Staples, were on their way to FraserÕs Hill for the weekend when this silver Rolls-Royce was ambushed by terrorists. Sir Henry Gurney was killed as he was stepping out of the car, straight into the line of fire. Although his wife and Secretary escaped unhurt, altogether thirty-five bullet holes were counted on the Rolls-Royce.

ÒOriginally black in colour, it was later used as a State car by the late Y. M. Tun Raja Uda, first Governor of Penang, from 1st September, 1957.Ó

My mind immediately went back to descriptions I had heard and read of the tragic ambush by Malayan Chinese Communist terrorists. I recalled a photo of the bullet-riddled car, taken shortly after the assassination, in my collection of books back in Melbourne.

The Malayan Chinese Communists had fought a guerrilla war against the Japanese occupiers of Malaya (now Malaysia) during World War Two. After hostilities, they agitated for a Communist Republic of Malaya. But the British, who had resumed control of the country, promoted the interests of the native Malays over those of the Chinese. When Communist attempts at peaceful subversion failed, their inspirational leader Chin Peng launched a terrorist campaign against the British, of which Sir Henry Gurney became a casualty.

The book Out in the Midday Sun - The British in Malaya 1880-1960 by Margaret Shennan (John Murray, London, 2000) includes an eyewitness account of Sir HenryÕs assassination. It comes from Jim Winchester, a British rubber-planter living in Malaya at the time:

ÒWe often went to FraserÕs Hill, where our Company had a holiday bungalow, on local leave. [But] I was driving from a posting on a rubber estate in Selangor [Batang Berjuntai] to another in Pahang [Kuala Lipis]. It was, therefore, just a coincidence that I caught up with the tail end of the convoy as it was attacked. I didnÕt know Sir Henry was in the convoy (or indeed that there was any sort of military movement) but opinion seemed fairly certain that the CTs [Communist Terrorists] did. The ambush occurred somewhere between Kuala Kubu and the Gap.Ó

The author, Ms. Shennan, adds: Ò...the thirty-eight-man unit of the the 11th Regiment of the MRLA (Malayan Races Liberation Army) was expecting to seize a convoy of military arms. Instead, they saw a Rolls-Royce with escorting vehicles, and when they started shooting Sir Henry stepped from the car into the line of fire to save Lady Gurney. He was killed instantly.Ó

Now, back at the Penang museum, I stood in awe of the Rolls-Royce. My mind conjured up images of the hapless Sir Henry falling in a hail of bullets beside his limousine - the same motor car now before me - as it too was peppered by gunfire. Shaking off my reverie, I knew there was something I now had to do. 

I must ascertain the chassis number of this Silver Wraith. That is the only way to identify a Rolls-Royce, no matter how many times its registration number might change. Then, back home, by checking my reference material I could verify that this was indeed the car involved in that infamous ambush, and discover more of its history.

It was plain to see that the four doors, and their handles, of the Rolls-Royce were tied together with binding wire, to prevent them from being opened. But not - I was pleased to note - the bonnet. And the plastic chain across the front of the shed wasnÕt deterring other museum visitors, especially children, from literally crawling all over the car. Thus encouraged, I too stepped over the chain, after checking to see that no security guards were watching. A word of explanation here. I knew that, technically, I was trespassing by crossing that barrier. But so was nearly everybody else. I also felt justified because of my many yearsÕ experience driving and looking after a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith similar to this one. Therefore, I would treat the car with the care and respect it deserved, even if it was now a sorry, shabby mess.

A shiver ran down my spine at what I saw next. On the left rear door and wing (mudguard), the deteriorating paintwork showed up two patches where bullet holes had been filled in. Moving to the front of the car, I then prepared to gingerly lift the left half of the bonnet open. It was here I hoped to discover the carÕs chassis number, engraved on a small rectangular plate affixed to the engine bulkhead.

This was easier said than done. Stiff with age and lack of lubrication, the bonnet seemed to resist my attempts to open it. Finally, after loud, rusty groans from the hinges - prompting me to surreptitiously look behind for any signs of officialdom (there were none, thank God!) - I managed to raise the two left panels of the bonnet to only an approximation of their usual opened position. 

By now, a Malay woman and her brood of children had gathered round to witness my impromptu demonstration. Watching in awe as the grimy, cobweb-festooned engine came into view, they seemed particularly enthralled when I pointed out the name ÒRolls-RoyceÓ on the rocker cover.

So impressed was the Malay mum, she happily complied with my request to hold open the bonnet while I wiped layers of dirt off the chassis plate. Presently, the chassis number WHD52 was revealed. This later checked out, confirming the identity of the Silver Wraith attacked on that fateful day in October 1951: a 1950 model with limousine coachwork by Park Ward.

Finally, I lowered the bonnet back into place, making sure to fasten both catches properly, which surprisingly ÔcaughtÕ. So, when one of those meddlesome children tried to emulate my bonnet-opening feat, he failed dismally and gave up the uneven struggle.

The British departed Malaya in 1957. Remaining as a relic of their rule is this tired, worn-out old Rolls-Royce. It seems destined to quietly rot its days away in the Penang museum, a reminder of one of the saddest days in MalaysiaÕs troubled history.

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